The Bay Citizen and the Center for Investigative Reporting, two non-profit organizations based in the Bay Area, announced formally Tuesday that they intend to merge.

Under terms of the agreement, Berkeley, Calif.-based CIR, which also runs California Watch, would take over management of the Bay Citizen, an online publication with a publishing partnership with The New York Times. Phil Bronstein, a former Hearst executive and chairman of CIR’s board of directors, will become the executive chairman of the combined companies, the two organizations said in the announcement. The rest of the leadership and direction of the new non-profit entity will be decided in the next 30 days by a joint committee from the two organizations.

“This creates an opportunity to have a much broader reach and a loyal base,” Robert J. Rosenthal, executive director of CIR, said in a telephone interview with MediaShift. “We really want to be at the forefront of taking unique, high-quality information and melding it with evolving technologies.”

Rosenthal added that the merger would also be an “opportunity to engage the audience in the Bay Area especially around the idea of accountability, or investigative, stories.”

Dubbed BayWatch by reporters at one of the organizations, the merger will bring together two award-winning newsrooms at a time when finding sustainable models of journalism seems as uncertain as ever.

FILLING VOIDS

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CIR’s Robert Rosenthal, from the California Watch website.

For CIR, the partnership would fill a void in its coverage of national and international issues, as well as statewide stories with its California Watch brand. While the Bay Citizen brand offers CIR entry into a regional market, Rosenthal said the types of stories that come out of the Bay Area are also “important and relevant to a national and international audience.”

Then there’s the money. In 2010, the Bay Citizen had more than four times as much revenue as CIR, according to tax filings from both organizations. The Bay Citizen received $11.4 million that year largely from private donations and foundation grants.

For the Bay Citizen, the merger has different implications. It comes at a time of a leadership vacuum for the organization. Its chief executive, editor in chief and managing editor — the startup’s original three employees — have all left in the past few months. The startup’s founder and benefactor, billionaire Warren Hellman, passed away late last year.

Last Friday, early morning visitors who tried to go to the site were greeted instead to the homepage of GoDaddy.com, a popular web hosting service. Redirects like this often happen when a domain name isn’t renewed. The site was quickly back up that day, but media watcher Jim Romenesko said it was a sign that the Bay Citizen was in disarray.

Peter Lewis, the Bay Citizen’s managing editor, did not reply to an email requesting comment. Aaron Glantz, a Bay Citizen reporter and chairman of the site’s Newspaper Guild unit, declined to comment.

One concern that surrounds any merger is the possibility of redundancies. Put simply, will people get fired? CIR’s Rosenthal said that while there’s certainly a possibility of eliminating positions — especially those that have been allocated for in the Bay Citizen’s budget but have yet to be filled — he’s hopeful that they can create a scenario in which people don’t lose their jobs. There are no plans to eliminate the Bay Citizen brand after the merger, Rosenthal added.

DO NOT RESUSCITATE

In many ways, the Bay Citizen defines the prototypical online startup — start with a bang, raise a lot of money and, at some point, get swooped up by someone more established. Founded in 1977, the Center for Investigative Reporting is the nation’s oldest non-profit investigative news organization. CIR’s most recent venture, California Watch, is the largest investigative team in the state, according to the company.

But the tumult surrounding the not-so-bootstrapped Bay Citizen is less a sign that we live in a bubbling tech world than of the challenges facing news innovation these days.

The Bay Citizen launched in mid-2010 as the world was ready to sign the do-not-resuscitate order for the San Francisco Chronicle, the area’s major daily newspaper. One of its first orders of business was to announce a partnership to fill the pages of the New York Times Bay Area section, a way for the nascent company to extend its brand’s exposure.

“Having local news coverage from the Bay Citizen will complement the national and global coverage that has made The Times a popular news provider in the Bay Area,” Bill Keller, then-executive editor of The Times, said in a statement at the time. “Based on the quality of the initial news articles from the Bay Citizen’s newsroom, I am confident it will serve our Bay Area readers with substantive, informative local journalism.”

When it became apparent that the Bay Citizen’s role would not be that of the charitable undertaker of the legacy print world, the startup suddenly found itself thrust into the position of the Chronicle’s competitor.

The Bay Citizen broke several major stories in the area, ranging from back-room political dealings to public safety threats. Last year, the online publication ran an investigation about the San Francisco’s rapid transit system that landed on the Times’ most-emailed list that week.

New Direction for Bay Citizen?

The Bay Citizen is often uttered in the same breath as the Texas Tribune, another online news startup that partners with The New York Times. Last year, the Knight Foundation awarded the two organizations a $975,000 grant to offer their shared open-source content management system to other news startups that have struggled to implement low-cost publishing platforms.

At the same time, critics have suggested that the Times’ partnerships offer as many drawbacks as they do benefits.

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Steve Fainaru

“We have our identity online that’s completely different than what we’re doing in the Times,” Steve Fainaru, former acting editor in chief of the Bay Citizen, said last November in an interview with NetNewsCheck.com, a website focused on digital media. “We want to be more innovative. We want to be experimental. We want to have a different voice than we have in the Times.”

This week’s announcement could finally give the Bay Citizen the opportunity to do that. The Bay Citizen’s contract with The Times is scheduled to renew in October unless terminated by either party with 60 days’ notice, according to the news startup. In a presentation to the Bay Citizen’s board in late January, Bronstein notably left out discussion of the organization’s contract with the Times, Lewis wrote in a blog post on the Bay Citizen’s site. Bronstein said the agreement could possibly conflict with partnerships that CIR has with dozens of other print partners, according to Lewis.

Rosenthal said that CIR had been in communication with the Times, but no plans have been made to move one way or the other.

“The Times model is different, but it doesn’t mean we can’t make it work,” Rosenthal said. “We have to be sensitive and considerate to the people we’re already working with.”

PARTNERSHIPS

Regardless of what role the Times might play in the new company, partnerships remain a vital element to its success — both in terms of revenue generation as well as exposure. CIR and California Watch have built their models around syndication.

CIR distributes its stories to television, print, radio and online outlets, including NPR News, PBS “Frontline,” the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, “60 Minutes” and others.

In 2010, the Bay Citizen initiated collaborations with 27 news sites and blogs that focus on hyperlocal coverage of different neighborhoods, communities and cultural projects, according to the company’s most recent annual report. It also launched a collaboration with KGO AM 810, a local news radio station.

Combined, CIR and The Bay Citizen have more than 70 employees.

“The Bay Citizen was started as an experiment in journalism,” Susan Hirsch, a founding member of the Bay Citizen’s Board of Directors and the philanthropic adviser to the late Warren Hellman, said in the announcement. “From the beginning, The Bay Citizen has been committed to high quality journalism, progressive use of technology, and a strong business model. This potential merger is another step on that path.”

Ashwin Seshagiri is freelance reporter and a student at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. His work as appeared in the New York Times, Bloomberg News, the Bold Italic, SF Weekly and other outlets. Previously, he launched social media programs for a Fortune 500 company, helped produce animations for cell phones and sold bad wine to unsuspecting tourists in South America. He can be reached at shwiners@gmail.com.

> Bay Citizen in Merger Talks at Bay Citizen

> Bay Citizen in Merger Talks With Another Nonprofit at Wall Street Journal

> Bay Citizen, Center for Investigative Reporting Announce Intent to Merge at Bay Citizen

> The Bay Citizen’s short, strange saga in nonprofit news could be coming to an end at SF Business Times

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